A new book on the sufficiency economy philosophy makes a bold claim. The publication is titled “Sufficiency Thinking: Thailand’s Gift to an Unsustainable World”.
There is little doubt that the question of sustainability has hit the world with a bang. The UN’s adoption of the 2030 Agenda with its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) underlines the fact that the world has realised the urgent need to tackle growing crises including inequalities in wealth, access to food and clean water, and so on.
Edited by Dr Gayle C Avery, a pioneer in the field of sustainable leadership, and Dr Harald Bergsteiner, who specialises in sustainability-management models, the book contains chapters written by eminent Thai scholars explaining sufficiency thinking and reviewing its implementation in different sectors.
The introduction explains that: “The Thai model of sufficiency thinking aims to transform the mindset of a whole population to achieve the seemingly impossible: enriching everyone’s lives in a truly sustainable way. Innovative management practices developed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand have been applied across Thailand in agriculture, business, education, government and community organisations over the past two or more decades.”
Although the publication covers the full gamut of ways in which the theory has been put into action, the crucial question, in my mind, was always: Is sustainable development sustainable? In other words, can this highly important societal transformation be passed on to the next generation?
I found the answer in the chapter “Cultivating a Sufficiency Mindset in Thai Schools”, written by Dr Priyanut Dharmapiya (Piboolsravut) and Dr Molraudee Saratun.
Under the “sufficiency-based schools” project, students are trained to understand and practice sufficiency thinking in their daily lives – not just learning through textbooks, but making sure that the young know how to become self-reliant, good citizens, live a balanced life and be resilient.
In this “whole-of-school approach”, sufficiency is embedded in all school operations – so that students perceive it as “normal” rather than something alien to daily life.
The article claims that of almost 40,000 Thai schools, 18,699 were successfully certified as sufficiency-based schools by October 2015. Numbers alone don’t tell the real story, of course.
How was “success” measured? The two researchers had these outcomes to report:
“Schools using sufficiency principles are more efficient and effective. Students with a sufficiency mindset are more moderate in their material consumption but generous in sharing with others. Both teachers and students gain knowledge and insight while developing self-reliance. They are more prudent and balanced in managing their lives, and demonstrate greater resilience.”
The big question remains: How can sustainable development philosophy be sustained in schools?
The two researchers listed three challenges facing the project:
First, it’s a major challenge to maintain existing sufficiency-based schools. For one thing, the Education Ministry rotates school heads every four years. “Incoming principals often choose to implement new initiatives rather than continue the sufficiency approach.”
Second, how can schools be persuaded to join the movement, given that they must voluntarily “self-nominate?” Existing participants are normal small schools that got involved not because of ministerial policy or the media but because of their inside-out desire for change, coupled with hearing about effective outcomes spread by word-of-mouth from pioneer sufficiency schools.
“Resistance from teachers is a major issue,” the researchers admit, “but their support is essential for increasing the number of sufficiency schools.”
Third, how can the sufficiency mindset be maintained in students after they leave school and enter wider society, where the context is not conducive to this mentality?
The authors write: “A decade of political turmoil has slowed the development of sustainability in Thailand, even though it requires participation from many sectors of society in addition to education. One such sector is the media, which is very influential but generally not supportive of the sufficiency path.”
The conclusion about the media not being supportive of the sufficiency philosophy isn’t necessarily valid. But the concern that young minds, however well trained in school, may be “diluted” once they enter the “real world”, is warranted.
The serious attempt to cultivate a sufficiency mindset in Thai schools is praiseworthy and should be supported by all segments of society. But it cannot be implemented effectively as a standalone project. To be sustainable, the self-sufficiency campaign has to adopt a comprehensive approach where schools, local communities, the private sector, the government and all sectors of society march hand in hand, with a “frontal-attack strategy” that leaves nobody behind.